In my last post, I was writing about how getting feedback is good, even when it’s bad feedback. And I still believe that, even though I’ve just spent the last 30 minutes fuming over the quality of the feedback from the dissertation chair of the pseudonymous RSP (really smart person).
To me, much of it seems petty and unnecessary. It angers me to see, for example, general statements that are obvious—beyond obvious—taken to task. But I look again, and I wonder, is it really obvious?
RSP and I share some fundamental views about the very nature of philosophy, especially with respect to the indeterminacy/indefinite nature of structures of knowledge (that’s not necessarily how RSP would phrase it, though), which leads to my accepting ideas that others are not so ready to accept. And that’s the issue: I’m not the person that RSP has to satisfy, and getting angry at the chair doesn’t actually help me find a route to satisfy the chair.
It’s a challenge to work through feedback like that. It’s the death of a thousand pinpricks. I read one comment, and I’m slightly annoyed. I read two, I’m a little more annoyed. I read four or ten or a dozen, and I’m fuming. It’s not even my work and I’m still more than annoyed at the feedback. There are comments that I agree with and comments that complimentary. But those are respites in a sea of brambles, picking at my skin.
Is this bad feedback? That depends on the standards by which I judge it. By the standards that come most easily—the emotional response shaped by by immediate intellectual judgements about the feedback (e.g., being annoyed that the chair asks for a citation on a claim that I don’t think ought to be cited)—yes, it’s bad feedback. Bad in two ways: 1. doesn’t give sufficient guidance on how to fix it (e.g., “I don’t like the way you do this” vs. “you need to take steps X, Y, and Z to resolve this problem”), and, 2. emotionally loaded, at times (e.g., not only saying “this is a problem” but also “I don’t know why you refuse to fix this problem”). The thing about those judgements is that they’re entirely based on my own perspective. What about the professor’s perspective?
I don’t know the professor’s perspective, of course, so I’m left to guess. And given that there is not enough clear guidance on how to fix it to be confident, my guess is a little bit of a shot in the dark. But it’s the best I can do…
In this situation, it’s interesting to try to imagine what the person who gave feedback is thinking. What is it that the chair needs or wants that is not being delivered? Is the resistance a matter of resistance to the general project? Or is it a resistance to a specific absence? These questions are speculative, of course, but exploring them can be useful at least in defusing some of the emotion. Is the chair unable to understand some points? Or unwilling? Is the problem that the chair disagrees with something or that the chair thinks something is unclear?
A dissertation writer is obviously a student who is n many ways at the mercy of the dissertation chair. But it still can be useful to think as a teacher: suppose, as a teacher, you have trouble reaching a student? Do you say that the student is too stupid? Or do you try to explain the same ideas from a different angle?
Getting feedback can be difficult to deal with, but to try to think through the eyes of the person who gave the feedback can help at least defuse some of the emotional charge.
Once you’re past the emotional charge (at least for a while): What is the plan to persuade that person of the value of your work? What steps can you take? In this case, and in many others, my next step is to look for the feedback that seems the best: there are dozens of comments in this draft—which ones do I think make good points that I want to address? It’s with these that I will start, and the rest, I’ll look at later—maybe I’ll figure something out for them by trying to respond to the feedback that asks good questions.
None of this eliminates the emotional sting of a complaint, or the frustration of wading through pages filled with comments, but it does help me step back from the work to ask whether the same ideas could be conveyed in a different form. And what form would be suitable to satisfy the specific individual of significance (the chair)? The written work is not an abstract sharing of some idealized truth, but rather a lesson that teaches your reader the value of the work. If your reader doesn’t get it the first time, how can you do it differently to resolve the difficulties that appeared?